Is voting essential to our democracy?

It is difficult to find something that most Americans agree on. Lately it seems like everything from what sports you watch to what type of food you eat sends some kind of message about what your political leanings are.

After the COVID-19 pandemic and the global protests against systemic racism, it seems like there is even less room to not have a political opinion. Which of course means that there is more room than ever to disagree.

However, even though Americans may not see eye to eye when it comes to most things, there is one topic most people seem to be in agreement on: the importance of voting.

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In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, around 74% of Americans said they believed that high voter turnout was very important. All things considered, this is a pretty significant point for most Americans to agree on, since a high voter turnout might mean that people are more engaged in the political process and more willing to hold elected officials accountable. 

There is only one problem with this poll: A huge percentage of eligible voters never actually vote. Americans may believe that high voter turnout is important, but they seem to have trouble translating that belief into reality.

U.S. Voter Turnout vs. the Rest of the World

Voter turnout in the U.S. is quite low when compared with the voter turnout in other developed countries. For example, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark and Australia have voter turnouts of about 80% or higher.

During the 2016 presidential election, however, the United States had a voter turnout of about 56%, which is consistent with voter turnout rates for presidential elections in the past few decades. 

This number gets even lower for midterm and local elections, which is especially troubling. It makes sense that more voters would feel compelled to head to the polls for presidential elections, since those elections get more attention, and many voters know more about their national lawmakers than local ones. 

However, state and local elections may matter as much (if not more) than presidential elections, since local elected officials are the ones who make decisions related to public transportation, school funding, infrastructure projects, law enforcement and much more.

What are some reasons for our low voter turnout?

Often, eligible voters will justify not voting by saying that their votes do not count or that they do not like their options because no candidate aligns perfectly (or sometimes even closely) with their political views. 

This is especially true for people who live in states that lean heavily toward the left or the right. These eligible voters often think, “My state is going to vote blue/red no matter what I do, so why do I even need to show up to vote?”

Still others say they are not engaged in the voting process because they feel hopeless that the outcome of any election will change their lives in any meaningful way. 

What do lawmakers think about the importance of voting?

If, as some Americans suggest, voting counts for so little and has such little impact on an election, then lawmakers do not seem to know it. 

In fact, politicians spend much of their time in office worrying about who can vote, how they can vote and when they can vote. Even though the Constitution is straightforward about the minimum voting eligibility requirements (you must be at least 18 and a citizen), lawmakers spend a lot of energy thinking of ways to add to those requirements.

They break their heads (and their district maps) trying to hand-pick their voters through gerrymandering. They throw their weight behind legislation to take voting rights away from incarcerated individuals or to give those voting rights back. They fight over whether or not voters should have to register months before an election or have access to same-day registration. 

They obsess over how many polling stations will be open on Election Day — and where. And finally, they treat voter fraud as an extremely serious offense, even going as far as throwing parolees back in prison for years for casting a ballot without first serving out their parole. 

So — is voting essential to our democracy? Politicians sure seem to think so, if only based on how much time, money and energy they put into trying to influence the “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” of the electorate.

How can the U.S. increase voter participation?

It may seem like voter participation is hard to control, but many developed countries have taken on the challenge and seen a lot of success when it comes to voter registration and voter turnout. 

Overall, experts identify a few factors that could make voter participation increase in the United States. The first is making voter registration easier. The second is making voting itself easier and more convenient.

When it comes to voter registration, the U.S. has one of the lowest rates among all developed countries. This is partly because many countries have stricter voting registration requirements, whereas in the U.S., registration is an individual responsibility.

However, even without making voter registration compulsory, the U.S. can take certain steps to increase the number of registered voters. 

Ideas for Increasing Voter Registration

One simple step that many experts suggest is to allow eligible voters to register online. 

Currently, almost every state has online voter registration, but a few influential states do not, particularly Texas, North Carolina, New Jersey and Maine. 

Another way to make registration easier is to make the deadlines to register to vote less strict. Make states, for example, require eligible voters to register more than a month before an election if they want to vote in that election. Only 10 states (and Washington D.C.) allow for same-day voter registration.

Another simple way to increase voter registration is to offer it widely through each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). This would mean that eligible voters would be able to conveniently register as they are accomplishing other tasks without needing to go out of their way to fill out a registration.

Ideas for Increasing Voter Turnout

When it comes to making voting itself easier, there are a few steps that experts suggest.

One is to offer early voting or pre-election day voting to anyone who wishes to vote early. This gives those who cannot make it to the polls on Election Day the ability to cast a ballot anyway.

Another option is to make absentee ballots (vote-by-mail) easier to request and fill out. A few states allow voters to request absentee ballots for any reason. However, in many other states, voters cannot vote by mail unless they meet very specific requirements.